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Why my children study a foreign language

Posted on July 23, 2015 at 6:00 am

By Gwendolyn Haley

Why my children study a foreign language by Gwendolyn Haley | Spokane County Library District

They don’t believe us when we tell them, but our children will thank us for this one day. You see, for the last few years, my husband and I have required our three daughters to study a foreign language; specifically, Mandarin Chinese. Why Chinese? We taught English for 18 months at a university in the People’s Republic of China. While we lived in China, we had the opportunity to learn Mandarin as well as teach English. Studying a language as an adult was difficult; I’m still functionally illiterate in Chinese. When travelling in China, I found that while our language skills were sufficient to ask directions, they were not, alas, up to the task of actually understanding and following those directions. This led to some interesting adventures, but those are stories for another day.

While teaching in China, we learned that all of our students had studied English for a minimum of six years before attending university. While I had studied Spanish for three years in high school and another two years in college, I was nowhere near as conversant in Spanish as our students were in English. As English majors, they also studied a third foreign language. Chinese families who can afford to will enroll their children in preschool English Language programs to get a head start. When we decided to have our daughters start learning a language in elementary school, we chose a language that we could have in common as a family. This turned out to be especially helpful when we adopted our youngest daughter internationally from China.

Our quest to expose our children to other languages when they were younger was inventive and somewhat improvised. This led to my husband telling the girls yes, they could watch a movie, but only with one of the alternate language tracks. Over the years we’ve watched Lilo and Stitch in French, Mulan in Mandarin, and various Pixar films in Spanish. After a family trip to China in 2010, we decided that we needed to become less scattered in our approach. Since the girls’ school did not offer any opportunities to start studying a second language before high school, we started with Rosetta Stone. Over the last few years, we’ve tried a number of other methods, including Skritter: a program designed to help you learn to read and write Chinese, a personal tutor, and even a Skype tutor.

Here in Spokane County, we are fortunate that Gonzaga University offers Startalk, whose mission is to increase the number of Americans learning, speaking, and teaching critical-need foreign languages. Both of my oldest daughters have spent two years participating in Startalk’s Chinese Language Summer Camp. Here at the District we have Pronunciator, an interactive and self-paced online language learning tool free to library card holders. Pronunciator offers 80 languages, and includes courses for young learners, elementary, and secondary students, as well as 8-week travel preparation courses. I wish we’d had access to this great resource several years ago when our daughters first started learning Mandarin.

Language study has many benefits for children. Research findings outlined in “Benefits of Second Language Study” by the National Council of State Supervisors for Languages demonstrated that studying a second language provides the following benefits to students:

  • academic progress in other subjects
  • better higher order, abstract, and creative thinking
  • enriches and enhances cognitive development
  • promotes cultural awareness and competency
  • improves chances of college acceptance, achievement, and attainment
  • enhances career opportunities
  • benefits understanding and security in community and society

While the girls protest mightily about having to study Chinese, I am seeing the benefits. When our oldest started to study German in high school, she had developed a level of mental flexibility and understanding about how languages work that made learning German easier. Our middle daughter has benefitted from starting even earlier, and her ear for languages is quite good. Both of them have also widened their perspective on the world, and learned about other people and cultures as a result of studying Chinese. While they may not continue with Mandarin (it’s not offered in our school), they both plan to study a second language for the full four years in high school.

When I told a friend about our plan to have the girls’ spend four weeks during the summer in a Monday-Thursday, 9am-2pm Chinese language immersion program, she was horrified. “But, it’s SUMMER!” she gasped. I told her, “Someday, they’ll thank me for it.” And I believe that, I truly do.

Gwendolyn Haley

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